"The Social Network of the South"
*This piece originally appeared at ConnectSavannah.com.
When I first met my husband in Northern California, I was fascinated by his Southernness.
The sexy drawl, the Low Country Boil he cooked up for my birthday, his refusal to wear a skirt like the other scruffily-bearded hippie boys ... let's just say he stood out.
He sugared me up with his "y'alls" and his "yes ma'ams," and introduced me to his mama, who patted my cheek and called me "dahlin'".
When we wed, I thought I might automatically become Southern, as if I could absorb by osmosis a dewy complexion, elegant gentility and the ability to make a tasty casserole out of nothing but some pencil shavings and a Vidalia onion.
I write thank you notes on heavy card stock. I wear lipstick to the grocery store. After much gagging, I developed a palate for boiled peanuts. I once tried to make a dress out of the curtains, but it looked less Scarlett O'Hara than Project Runway Reject.
But try as I might to be a true Southerner, it is clearly hopeless that I will ever get it right, bless my heart. Instead of rising pretty and fluffy as your grandma's knitting, my breakfast biscuits resemble something knocked out of a granite quarry.
My Derby hat is a fedora. My children, no matter how many pointed looks of death are shot their way, cannot seem to remember to address their elders with "Yes, sir" instead of "Whatevs."
So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Southern C Summit, a resplendent gathering of Southern tastemakers, bloggers and brandmakers held at Jekyll Island last week. Surely I would out myself as an imposter by lapsing into Valley Girl-speak or not knowing the difference between bourbon and whiskey.
It did not help that instead of booking a hotel room on the island like normal people, my husband and I stayed up the road at the Hostel in the Forest. This rustic respite is one of my favorite places in Georgia, where cells phones tend to freeze and the only streetlights are fireflies. I'll take any excuse to escape into nature, even if it means the paradox of blow-drying my hair in a treehouse.
Hosted by the Southern Coterie, a vibrant online social network to "connect, congregate and converse" about all things below the Mason-Dixon line, the summit was far from a bunch of ladies chirping about china patterns.
Creators Whitney Long and Cheri Leavy brought a tremendous line-up to the glassed-in halls of the stunning new Jekyll Island Convention Center, where Southern media's biggest brains (wearing its most fabulous shoes) shared strategies for entrepreneurs on how to capture the essence of the front porch aesthetic.
"The South is hot right now," advised speaker Erin Shaw Street, the travel and web editor for Southern Living, an icon successfully forging the identity of the New South while preserving the unique heritage of the Old. While china patterns remain a charming mainstay in SL's content, the classic magazine keeps a manicured finger on the pulse of new trends in culture and cuisine. It rolled out a sleek digital edition last year and commands Pinterest like a sweet-tempered colonel.
The South's role as major player in the new economy was also a summit theme: Confounding the stereotypes that everyone around here is either Eudora Welty or Honey Boo Boo was Charlestonian Stanfield Gray, the executive producer of the recent interactive techfest DigSouth.
Where it might have once been dismissed, Southern culture is now coveted in the mainstream conversation about innovation and the digital era.
"We are mentally, physically and spiritually mobile," Gray entreated. "We no longer have to move to succeed here."
Success in the contemporary South comes down to one simple adage: "Be authentic," counseled Street.
Thing is, you just can't fake Southern. The true belles have a gimlet eye for wannabes and liars, though they'll still be as sweet as tea to your face while you wax on about your pimiento cheese dip recipe that you obviously purloined from Southern Living.
So I decided to stop trying. You don't have to be Southern to live and love the South, and I've found that if you mind your manners and clean up after yourself, the South will welcome you in like family anyway.
I pulled the stray twigs out of my hair and settled in with a cadre of fabulous Savannah folk who know me well enough to forgive my endless repertoire of faux pas.
The Hostess City was well-represented in this well-coiffed coterie: Ruel Joyner set up a cozily chic 24E living room in the lobby. Roberto and Lacie Leoci were rained out of their outdoor appetizer event, but they adapted by adding Leoci's culinary goodies to the epic swag bags. Hunter Cattle Company sent their marketing mama Kristen Fretwell to the Southern C for tips on how to handle sudden massive success. (I made a quiche out of Leoci's Hunter-supplied duck prosciutto last week, and let me tell y'all, it was dee-vine.)
It was a wonder to watch artist Katherine Sandoz dashing off delightful renderings of summitgoers that then flashed across the live Twitter feed wall. I shared a cocktail with public relations powerhouse Jennifer Abshire and marketing whiz Cari Clark Phelps, who has helped brand dozens of businesses and has recently turned her talents inward with her line of luxury bath products Salacia Salts (really, only a genius could tie together Roman mythology and Tybee lore.)
Photographer Jade McCully, stylist Liz Demos and event planner Andrea Gray Harper patted the chair next to them, just like in Steel Magnolias when Clairee tells Truvy, "If you can't say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me." They didn't even flinch when I told them I showered al fresco that morning.
The lines began to blur between hostel and the convention center, the fireflies and Twitter, the connection to nature and the networking with smart, forward-thinking people, between who I really am and who I still hope to become.
By the time bowtie designer and quintessential Southern gentleman K. Cooper Ray took the stage as keynote speaker, I felt right at home among so many genuine Southern belles and beaus. Even if I did forget my lipgloss in the woods.
A revelation came when Ray, an Alabama-born international stylemaker who strikes the perfect balance between the traditional and the eccentric, described his new Social Primer tuxedo line — a black tie collection without any black — thusly:
"Colorful and eclectic, just like we want our Southern women to be."
Jessica Leigh Lebos is a Savannah-based writer. She is the Community Editor of Connect Savannah, where you can find more of the (Civil) Society Column. When she's not blogging at YoYenta.com or tweeting @TypeItLoud, she is usually trying to get her chickens to cooperate.